The 3 Challenges Of Startup Marketing As We See

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My name is Takeshi. I am the founder of Lifecycle. We help startups succeed with better marketing.

After a long banking career, I started my startup marketing life in 2011, first involved in a portfolio of Maker Movement type of startups, and the last three years as the business guy for Singapore based fintech Canopy.

I am now in the third chapter of my life as a startup marketer. Startups fail at an alarmingly high rate, some even saying at a rate of 95% (other studies say 75%~90%). They fail from a combination of reasons, but it’s usually from one form or another of marketing flop. All successful startups got their marketing right. You need to get your product right, but right with the market.

I find startup marketing challenging on three aspects. Here are my thoughts.

Challenges of Startup Marketing

i) Marketing is overwhelming

Following the marketing and sales funnel from awareness generation to pre-sales, conversion and post-sales, marketing is long, wide and deep, and each stage requires distinctively different marketing and sales activities. Marketing is also multifaceted; it’s analogue (human sales) and digital (web and social marketing), visually and contextually creative yet data driven and engineerical, and every activity is a moving target because humans are unpredictable.

The real challenge though is not just this overwhelming nature of marketing per se, but the following two issues that stem from it:

  • Avoidance psychology: when we are faced with uncertainty and overwhelmed, it’s human nature to often avoid and ignore the stressor entirely, a form of coping mechanism. This avoidance psychology is probably one of the factors behind the “we’ll worry about marketing later” trap that startup entrepreneurs frequently fall into. We need to make marketing more approachable and easier to grasp for startups.

  • Specialist marketing functions: modern day marketing requires a lot of specialist functions across the various stages of marketing; such as in social and web experience, visual design, contents creation, marketing data and analytics, and management of marketing automation platforms. The spectrum is pretty wide and many of these functions are marketing technology related and evolving by nature. Startups need guidance for understanding and determining which of these functions are essential to their marketing operations, and support for accessing these specialist resources.

ii) Good marketing leads are hard to find, and the “hired gun” trap

Next, there’s also the resourcing issue of finding a good marketing team lead. Let’s take an example of an ideal Head of Marketing hire:

Head of Marketing wish list

  • Strong track record
  • Good project manager
  • Natural at sales
  • Capable and and/or able to direct contextual and visual creative work
  • Up to date with the latest social and digital marketing stack
  • Domain expert in the field of the startup’s product and business
  • Technically adept and communicative with product development and operations, etc.

It’s a demanding spec, most likely a hard search and possibly an expensive hire. Nonetheless, getting marketing right is mission critical, so I would agree this hire would be well worth the investment.

But here awaits another trap, the “hired gun” trap: hands-off delegation of all marketing to the new Head of Marketing, but with clear expectations for this new guy to deliver marketing success. This is just shifting the hit or miss nature of marketing, to hit or miss of hiring.

I coach Lean and Agile because they are very effective approaches to de-risking marketing. Lean and Agile promote marketing as an all-organization effort, helping the marketing team lead coordinated continuous experimentation among the product development and marketing teams, eventually leading to nailing product market fit.

Adopting Lean and Agile do not come easily though, as it goes against many of our ingrained behaviors. As outlined next, the marketing team lead also needs to function as a change agent for installing a new organizational culture.

iii) Good marketing “habits” don’t come naturally

I see the following three traits repeatedly surface across organizations as obstacles against marketing success. They are all rooted in our innate human behavior and social conditioning, telling us how challenging it would be to introduce alternate good marketing “habits”.

  • Marketing as an afterthought

While avoidance psychology, as earlier mentioned, is a major contributor to the “let’s get our product out first, we’ll worry about marketing next” tendency, this is also a reflection of a “we know what the customer wants” leap of faith fallacy. This is another psychological flaw (generally called “cognitive biases“) we humans inherently have. The problem of this thinking is that it’s pretty much a straight road to product-market misfit. While conviction and determination is a commendable, stubborn beliefs often have no foundation. You may know something about your customer, but not everything.

  • Ad-hoc and linear marketing

When marketing is done as an ancillary exercise post product development, they tend to be done in either (a) a non-planned, reactionary way, or (b) planned but in a traditional “waterfall” project management way. The former results in ad-hoc marketing where you are perpetually running after one marketing task after another. This may be okay if the product is self-selling, but that is hardly the case. The latter results in linear marketing; you envision your end goal, then work backwards on planning, implement the marketing program, and at the end you find yourself far off the goal (guaranteed!). Waterfall project management works well for projects where there is little or no uncertainty with the end goal. Most start-up projects are all about conquering uncertainties, linear marketing can’t handle that.

  • Hand-over culture between product and marketing teams

As with waterfall project management, traditional hierarchical functional organization structures are still common in start-ups, because that’s what we are used to. Together with that comes the culture of well defined functional roles, where individual workers are evaluated on the basis of how well that individual performed the function. For team roles in a traditional organizational structure, marketing is the marketing team’s job and a clean hand-over protocol is expected between the product and marketing teams. Again, this will work in a business that has little or no uncertainty (e.g. a canned sardine manufacturer selling into supermarket chains); it doesn’t for startups dealing with lots of product and customer uncertainty.

Would a “product manager and product marketer should better coordinate” approach solve this? One of the problems of traditional functional organization management is that it is a hotbed for blaming cultures – structurally allowing individuals and teams blame enterprise level non-performance to other teams and individuals (“I’m/we’re doing our job but he’s/they’re not”). In these cases, “coordination” becomes nothing but a peace keeping operation between teams.

How to Fix Startup Marketing

We focus on the following four areas to help startups become strong marketing organizations:

  1. Make marketing more approachable and easier to grasp
  2. Embrace third party specialist marketing resources and platforms
  3. Nurture marketing leaders
  4. Adopt Lean and Agile

In Part 2 of this post, I will go into details of how we approach these four areas of focus.

Can we help you with your marketing and organizational challenges? We also help larger enterprises transform with Lean and Agile. And if you are one of the “specialist resources” mentioned in this article, please get in touch and tell us how we can work together.

How did you find this article? Was it helpful? Do you agree with our analysis? Let us know your thoughts!